It’s time for the fourth giveaway of 2014 here at Opinions of a Wolf. Lots of the indie authors whose books I accepted for review in 2014 also were interested in me hosting a giveaway at the time of my review, so there will be plenty more coming up in the future too.
What You’ll Win: One ebook copy of One Death at a Time by Thomas M. Hewlett
How to Enter: Leave a comment on this post stating what profession you think might secretly have a lot of vampires among its ranks.
Who Can Enter: INTERNATIONAL
Contest Ends: July 11th. Two weeks from today!
Disclaimer: The winners will have their ebook sent to them by the author. The blogger is not responsible for sending the book.
Jack Strayhorn is a private eye and a member of Alcoholic’s Anonymous. Only, he’s not an alcoholic, he’s one of the vampires who meet in a secret vampire group that exists under the umbrella of AA to learn how to control their urges and feed on humans without killing them. He’s just returned to LA, his death site that he hasn’t been back to since he had to run in 1948 after becoming a vampire. When his current missing person case shows up dead next to a Fae politician, Jack gets dragged into a mixed-up underworld of Faes, werewolves, drugs, and a group of vampires determined to rule the world.
This is one of the twelve indie books I accepted to be reviewed on my blog in 2014 (complete list). I was immediately intrigued by the summary, due to its delightful urban fantasy/paranormal take on AA. The book delivers exactly what it promises, spiced with a noir writing style.
Jack Strayhorn is the perfect paranormal version of the noir-style hardboiled detective. He’s got a biting, snarky wit, a handsome presence, a sharp mind, and is a bit distant and mysterious. It’s just in this case he’s distant and mysterious because he’s a vampire. Making the private eye a vampire makes his character unique in noir, and, similarly, making the vampire a private eye with his focus primarily on crime solving and not paranormal politics gives the urban fantasy vampire a unique twist. Jack is presented as a complex character, one who we could not possibly get to know fully in just the first entry in the series. It’s easy to see how he will manage to carry the proposed 12 entries in the series.
Supporting Jack is a wide range of characters who accurately portray the diversity in a large town like LA, as well as the diversity one expects in a paranormal world. The characters are multiple races and classes. Whereas some urban fantasy books slowly reveal the presence of more and more paranormal races throughout the series, this book starts out with quite a few, and that is a nice change of pace. Most urban fantasy readers expect there to be more than just vampires, and the book meets the urban fantasy reader where they’re at. Even though the book has a large cast, the secondary characters never blend together. They are easily remembered, and the diversity probably helps with that.
I like the idea of vampires having an AA-like group, but I’m still not sure how I feel about this group existing as some secret under the umbrella of AA itself. The book even goes so far as to say the the founder of AA was a vampire himself, and used the human illness of alcoholism as a cover for the vampire group. I like and appreciate vampirism as a disease that some people just mysteriously have at birth as an analogy for alcoholism, but I feel that having it present in the same group as the real life AA groups dampens the realness of actual AA, weakening the analogy instead of strengthening it. I’ve seen books before have paranormal people get together in AA-style groups (zombies anonymous springs to mind), and in real life AA has spinoffs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous. Prior to reading the book I thought maybe something might be added by having the vampires be a secret organization under AA, but after reading the book, I don’t think it did. I think the analogy would have been stronger if vampires spotted the similarities of their genetic vampirism with alcoholism and formed a “vampires anonymous” group, inspired by AA. Something about vampires creating AA themselves as a cover hits a bit of a sour note and weakens the analogy.
The plot is complex, with just enough twists and surprises. There were parts of the ending that I was unable to predict. The plot contained within the book was wrapped up sufficiently, and the overarching plot intending to cover the whole series was well-established and filled me with the desire to keep reading. Unfortunately, the second book isn’t out yet, so I will just have to wait!
Overall, this is a delightful mix of urban fantasy and noir and is a strong first entry for a new series. Some readers might dislike the paranormal take on Alcoholic’s Anonymous found within the book, but it is secondary to the mystery/noir plot and easy to gloss over if necessary. Recommended to urban fantasy readers looking to venture into noir or vice versa, as well as anyone who enjoys both urban fantasy and noir.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world. And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf. But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf. Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness. When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next. This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.
Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning. She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too. Mental illness runs in her family. She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying. This is due to her schizophrenia. Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself. The reader is just along for this ride. And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride. Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness. Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.
Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages. This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):
All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking. Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)
The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness. Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life. This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express. It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence. They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds. Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.
Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)
There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character. Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian. She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people. People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life. Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition. She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery. The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir. Eva Canning is bisexual. It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous. However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way. Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous. What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way. Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.
The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened. The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book. The final third, though, takes an odd turn. Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions. That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful. However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe. I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted. It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life. Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function. I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened. The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.
The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar. There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going. Her voice is perfect for Imp. She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years. She sounds like the 20-something woman she is. I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print. Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.
Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal. The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan. Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically. Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.
4 out of 5 stars
When Richard’s physicist professor uncle dies tragically in a plane crash and leaves him his coin collection, he is shocked to find a brand-new dime from 2012. The only thing is, it’s 1989. A note from his uncle states that the coin is important. Richard thinks the answer to the mystery might be in his uncle’s personal diaries he also left him, but he’s not a physicist and can’t decipher them. As the year 2012 approaches, Richard increasingly wonders what the coin is all about.
I had previously reviewed a book by Glen Cadigan, Haunted (review), whose concept I really enjoyed. When he offered me this novella, I was happy to accept. This fun novella tells an old-fashioned scifi mystery story in a way that reminded me of reading similar works from the 1800s.
Richard’s first-person narration follows a style similar to that used often in older scifi; it reads as if the main character is writing everything down in his journal for longevity. It’s a cozy narration style that works well for the slow-moving mystery it tells.
This narration style also helps establish Richard into a well-rounded character quickly. The reader almost immediately feels an intimacy with Richard as he discusses his sorrow at his beloved uncle’s sudden death, why he was close to his uncle, and his thoughts on the mysterious coin. The uncle is, perhaps, less well-rounded but only in the sense that the reader comes to know him only through the eyes of a loving relative. It thus makes sense that mostly his good qualities come through.
Cadigan artfully maneuvers Richard’s handling of the mystery from the days before the internet to present. Richard first employs old-fashioned research techniques to try to figure out the mystery then loses interest. With the advent of the internet, though, he regains interest and starts researching again. This is completely realistic and reads just like what a person might have done.
Some basics physics of time-travel and time-travel theories are included. They are written at the right level for a general audience reading a scifi book, neither talking down to nor being too technical.
What really made me enjoy the book was the resolution to the mystery. I should have seen it coming, but I did not, and I always enjoy a surprise that feels logical when I think back on it.
So why four stars and not five? The novella left me wanting something more. It felt almost too short. Like there was something left out. Perhaps more time spent on Richard’s researching of the mystery or snippets from the uncle’s journals or some photos of the uncle and his airplane might have helped it feel more fully fleshed-out and real. The old-school narration style was enjoyable but some additions of some of the types of things a person might put in their journal would help it feel more complete. Even some simple sketches or perhaps a poem by Richard about his uncle, since he’s in the humanities, would have helped.
Overall, this novella is a fun new take on the storytelling method of having a character write in their journal about a mystery. The science is strong enough to be interesting but not too challenging, and the result of the mystery is surprising. Some readers might be left wanting a bit more to the story. Recommended to fans of scifi classics such as The Time Machine or The Invisible Man.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
Zak wakes up from a night of drunken revelry to find himself in his apartment but not his apartment building. His apartment is now part of a massive structure of multiple different architectural styles that looks like it goes on forever. Plus his bathroom is missing. Shreya wakes up in her car in a parking garage to Hungry Eyes playing on the radio and an ominous car nearby nicknamed “Die Pflaume.”
This first entry of a new serial does a quick job establishing a strong setting but just when the action gets going, it leaves the reader hanging.
When I accepted this review copy, I must admit that I didn’t realize it was the first entry in a serial, I thought it was in a series. Serials offer small episodes of an overarching story in bite-size chunks the reader picks up. Think of it as reading an episode of your favorite tv series. I think it would help if this was marketed more clearly as a serial, since certain readers love that reading experience and others aren’t too keen on it. Making it clearer that it’s a serial will help it better reach the right readers.
A good serial entry will read much like an episode in a tv show with a large, overarching plot, but also a smaller plot that can be told in one episode that is, ideally, tied to the overarching plot in some way. This gives the reader the satisfaction of completing a piece of smaller plot but also keeps them engaged in the series as a whole. This serial does a good job setting up the overarching plot. People are waking up in what appears to be an alternate universe that is possibly punishing them for something they did that they can’t remember with sinister beings chasing them or tormenting them from afar. It’s a good mystery, but it is just getting going when the serial entry stops. This would be ok, but the big weakness of the serial entry is that there is no self-contained smaller plot. Thus, instead of feeling any sense of satisfaction of having learned something or completed one mystery, the two main mysteries of the overarching plot are just getting going and then stop abruptly. Without the presence of a second, self-contained, smaller plot for this entry in the serial, this just leaves the reader feeling cheated out of getting the whole story, rather than the dual experience of satisfaction at the wrap-up of the smaller plot and intrigue at the larger plot.
The setting of the alternate universe is well-established and delightfully creepy. Everything being just a little bit off is creatively written without being in the reader’s face. The author also includes a drawing of a mysterious symbol that Zak sees, which helps build the atmosphere.
In contrast, Zak and Shreya feel a bit two-dimensional, but this is possibly because they have such a short time in which to be established. Similarly, the demonic character who chases Zak comes across as corny, straight out of a B movie, not frightening like he is, presumably, supposed to. The world building is so good that the two-dimensional good guys and cheesy bad guys stick out like a sore thumb.
The one flaw in the writing style is there are way too many similes. At times it feels that every other sentence contains one. Any descriptor used too much can go from artful to annoying. A lighter hand on these would be helpful in future entries.
Overall, this first entry in the serial establishes a delightfully creepy alternate universe where everything is just off. The lack of a smaller, self-contained plot in addition to an overarching plot will make this frustrating to read, unless the reader has the next entry at hand to read immediately. Recommended primarily to horror fans who like their horror in small bites and enjoy the concept of a serial who won’t mind waiting a bit for the conclusion to the mystery in future entries.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review
The Library of America collects together great pieces of American literature into themed books. This can be anything from an author, to writing on aviation, to the Harlem Renaissance, to transcendentalism. Clearly this is a collection of classic 1950s scifi, in particular covering the time period from 1956 to 1958. The books included in the collection, in order of publication date, are:
Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (1956)–When out-of-work actor Lorenzo Smythe is approached in a bar by a space pilot with a job offer, he agrees to at least go meet the man’s boss and discuss it. Quickly, however, Lorenzo finds himself being kidnapped into outer space and impersonating a missing important politician, John Joseph Bonforte, under slight duress. They must keep the public from knowing the politician has been kidnapped and successfully participate in a Martian adoption ceremony or face interplanetary war.
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)–In the future, men have discovered the ability to jaunte–to teleport from one location to the other. The only catch is that you can only teleport to a place you have previously been. This means that jauntes around the world are the domain of the wealthy who can make the journey first. In this future of teleportation and telepaths, the rich have become a hipster elite, showing off their wealth by using outmoded and and outdated methods of transportation like cars and trains. Foyle is one of the working poor. A hand on a spaceship that has an accident, leaving him in a closet grasping to the last straws of oxygen. Another spaceship passes him by, after clearly seeing his flare, and he vows vengeance upon them if he ever escapes alive. Which he does. What follows is a tangle of intrigue across time and space.
A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1958)–A new inhabited planet, Lithia, has been discovered, and an exploratory Earth crew of four is sent to determine how Earth will respond to the planet. Ruiz-Sanchez is a scientist and a member of this crew, but he’s also a Jesuit priest. Although he admires and respects the reptilian-humanoid inhabitants of Lithia, he soon decides that the socialist, perfectly co-existing society must be an illusion of Satan, so he advises against maintaining ties with the planet. The vote of the crew is a tie, however, so the UN must ultimately decide the fate. While they are awaiting the decision, Ruiz-Sanchez and the others must raise and guardian a Lithian child who is sent as a present to Earth. Soon, Ruiz-Sanchez starts having fears about just who the child might be.
Who? by Algis Budrys (1958)–In an alternate late 20th century, the Allies are still at a cold war with the Soviets. The Allies’ best scientist, Martino, is working on a secret project called K-88 when there is an explosion. The first rescuers to him are Soviet. The norm is for Allied prisoners to ultimately be returned across the line. But the Soviets claim that Martino’s skull and arm were badly damaged and return him with a metal, robotic head and arm. Is this man really Martino, or is he a Soviet plant?
The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (1958)–It’s the Time War, and the Spiders and Snakes are battling each other up and down the timeline in an attempt to give time the ultimate outcome they each are hoping for. Nobody knows precisely who the spiders and snakes are, but they briefly resurrect humans and ask them if they want to participate in the war. Those who say yes become the soldiers, nurses, and the Entertainers who provide rest and relaxation for the soldiers in the waystation. One waystation is about to hit a ton of trouble when a package shows up and a soldier starts talking mutiny.
This is my third Library of America collection and, unfortunately, is the one I’ve liked least so far. Perhaps I have simply discovered that the Red Scare overtakes American scifi of the late 1950s more than I had previously realized, and that is just not to my own personal scifi taste. The collection still does what it purports to, though: it gathers a selection of the best of American scifi in a particular time period, letting the reader immerse herself and truly come to know a particular genre in a particular period.
Since this collection gathers up books written by different authors, I have reviewed the books individually as I read them. Thus, here I will simply summarize my reviews to give you a feeling of the collection as a whole.
Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
Similar to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein presents a delightful mix of wit, Hollywood glamor, and thought-provoking political speeches all in a well-imagined and engaging future society. A fun piece of classic scifi that tosses together acting and politics in outer space with Martians who look like toadstools and a heavy sprinkling of wit. The romance leaves something to be desired, and the tech isn’t particularly predictive or imaginative, but these are minor aspects of the story. Recommended to fans of witty scifi who don’t mind a dash of political intrigue.
4 out of 5 stars
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
The world building is so excellent and gets so much attention from Bester that it overshadows the more average vengeance plot with iffy morals. Readers who enjoy immersing themselves in various possible futures will revel in the uniqueness and richness of the future presented here. Those who believe firmly in punishment for crime as opposed to redemption may not be able to get past the plot to enjoy the setting. Recommended to scifi fans interested in a unique future setting.
4 out of 5 stars
A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Essentially, the book has interesting world-building and what could be a promising plot that get derailed by two-dimensional characters and too many bizarre plot-twists and occurrences. It’s certainly an interesting read, particularly if you are interested in immersing yourself in this odd world Blish has created. However, readers should not expect to connect with the characters on an emotional level and should be prepared for a bizarre plot.
3 out of 5 stars
Who? by Algis Budrys
An interesting concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out nor the possible weaknesses fully addressed. It is definitely a scifi of its time, with its hyper-focus on the Soviets and the Cold War that could almost feel kitschy today. A short read with an interesting premise, albeit a lack of female scientists, soldiers, or government workers. Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy some old-fashioned red scare in their reads and don’t need the science to be perfect.
3 out of 5 stars
The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
A thought-provoking whodunit mystery set in an R&R waystation in a time-travel war. Some aspects of the book did not age particularly well, such as the hysterical fear of Communism and the lack of women soldiers, but the heart of the book is timeless. How do you know if those in charge are right or wrong, does love make you see things more or less clearly, and does evolution feel frightening and random when it’s happening. Recommended to scifi fans with an interest in a scifi take on a Clue-like story.
3 out of 5 stars
This is an interesting collection that shows how gradually fear of Communism came to take over American thought by the end of 1958. The two earliest books in the collection are set in a far future with no concerns about the long-reaching impacts of the Cold War. By the last two books, the futures are heavily impacted by the perceived threat of Communism, with one book even having time itself being unraveled and re-written in an attempt to stop the Russians. The most light-hearted, entertaining book in the collection is Double Star. I would recommend fans of witty scifi pick it up as soon as they get the chance. The most thought-provoking, with a cool world that could work quite well for cosplay is The Stars My Destination. It withstands the test of time quite well. The most interesting world is the planet and culture of Lithia in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience. The collection as a whole is primarily recommended to scifi fans with a heavy interest in how the Red Scare of 1950s America can be seen in scifi of the time.
3 out of 5 stars